P4k 2011: ‘Here we are now, entertain us’

July 14, 2011

Like anyone who dares to venture opinions in any way contrary to the perceived wisdom, critics need to have a thick skin. Big deal, so what, it comes with the turf, and this critic ain’t complaining. There really is only one thing anyone ever can say that gets under my skin, and it is this:

“What are you getting so excited about? It’s just entertainment!”

No. Music—at least the music I value—never is mere entertainment. It is a life force, and a reason for living. It means something.

Wait, let me correct that: It means everything.

As an entertainment experience, some people love outdoor festivals. Not me. I hate being rained on, though only slightly less than I hate being outside all day roasting in the sun in 90-degree heat. I hate Porta Potties. I hate sunscreen, but I hate sunburn even more. I hate dicey outdoor sound, and standing in dirt fields, and watching a band on a video screen because I can’t otherwise see the stage. I hate warm bottles of water. I hate being bumped by sweaty drunks, and I hate having a three-hour wait between acts I want to see but not being able to leave the venue to take a break somewhere air-conditioned.

I have always believed that the best rock ’n’ roll happens indoors at night, preferably with a hint of a.c., and definitely with easy access to very cold beer, a proper toilet, and great sound. But that’s me, and I have no problem with people who love the festival experience. I’m thinking of you, Greg Kot; check out the way he basks in the golden glow of the sun if you see him this weekend in Union Park. He’s nuts.

The point of this rant is that while the cons far, far (far) outnumbered the pros at every one of the Grant Park Lollapaloozas I’ve attended, I never felt that way about the first five years of the original touring Lollapaloozas or the first six years of the Pitchfork Music Festival—not once, ever, I swear.

It wasn’t the weather, the venue, the sound, or a better Porta Potty that elevated my favorite festival experiences. It was, first and foremost, the sheer electric thrill and overwhelming joy of losing myself in great live music. But then there was something else, something that amplified that kick: a sense of community—a feeling that, despite the inevitable diversity in a crowd of tens of thousands of dedicated individualists (as all true rock fans are), there was a common bond, a familiar passion... the knowledge that, no matter how different I might be from you, and vice-versa, we share this: the unshakeable belief that the music means something.

No, let me correct that: It means everything. That’s why we’re here, and that’s why we love being here, despite… you know, all that stuff we hate.

Cobain wasn’t expressing a supplicant desire with that line in “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” He was sneering at the very idea. “Here we are now, entertain us,” he sings. But the guitar and the vocals and the unforgettable, all-encompassing thrust of that song really says, “F*ck you! This music isn't just entertainment! It's about changing the world! Or at least changing myself, and maybe changing you, too! And in the end, that's the same thing! So take this!

In year seven, does the Pitchfork Music Festival mean anything? Or is it just a very well-marketed brand catering to a different demographic than the Vans Warped Tour, the Grant Park Lollapalooza, the Dave Matthews Band Caravan, or the Red Bull Riot Fest, but fundamentally the same business proposition: Collect their not-cheap tickets, pack ’em in, sell em a lot of crap, and entertain ’em. Ca-ching!

I suppose we’ll find out over the next 72 hours. At least, I hope we will.